Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Vol. 7, No. 2 April 1969
The annual meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association will take place on Saturday, April 26, 1969, at 2:00pm in the lower level meeting room of the Woburn Public Library. The main speaker will be Mrs. Edwin L. Clarke, who will take as her topic "A Novelist Looks at Canal History." Writing under the name of Mary Stetson Clarke, she has published many books, including "The Iron Peacock" and "Pioneer Iron Works" (about the Saugus Iron Works) and "The Limner's Daughter" (about Baldwin and the Middlesex Canal).
The election of officers and directors will take place. Members are reminded that Proprietors have the right to vote and to hold office. The Directors will propose a slate at the meeting, but will be happy to receive any other nominations.
After the business meeting and Mrs. Clarke's talk, refreshments will be served. All are invited to attend, whether or not they are members of the Association.
ROBERTS - Students, historians and canal buffs will be happy to learn that the Association is in the process of having reproduced Christopher Roberts' The Middlesex Canal, which is no longer available from the publisher, the Harvard University Press. Announcement will be made in these pages when the copies ordered have been delivered and are available for sale.
AN EXACTING STUDY OF THE COMPLEXITIES, OBSTACLES,
SUCCESSES AND FAILURES ENCOUNTERED IN THE
BUILDING AND OPERATION OF THE MIDDLESEX CANAL
by ALEC INGRAHAM
So the shift sail shall seek thy inland seas,
And swell and whiten in thy purer breeze;
New paddles dip thy waters, and strange oars
Feather thy bares and touch thy noble shores. (1)
Man's use of canals is almost as old as earliest recorded history, for the ancient Egyptians who toiled laboriously digging an irrigation ditch slantwise to the river Nile were actually building crude canals. Through canals Pharaohs controlled the flow of water and thus contributed greatly to the advancement of Egyptian civilization. In Babylon, the earth which was shoveled out of the canal ditches was formed into bricks which were baked and used as sides for the canals. Archaeologists have uncovered in Assyria a canal fifty miles long with a concrete bed. Spanning it is a bridge built with over two million blocks of stone. These are but a few examples of forerunners of the more modern canals. (2)
Perhaps the first canal in America was that which was cut across Long Island from Mecox Bay to Peconic Bay by Mongotucksee, the chief of the Montuck Indians, long before there were any white settlers. The little Pint Pot, Myles Standish, dreamed of cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. George Washington, haunted by canals, took a journey of six hundred and eighty miles, most of it on horseback, for the purpose of discovering whether it would be feasible to dig canals as far west as the Ohio and Lake Erie. He wanted not only to make available the produce and furs of the western settlers to the people of the United States, but also to export them to Europe. Benjamin Franklin had already outlined a complicated system of canals which he felt would bring wealth to Pennsylvania. It is not surprising, in view of these facts, that by 1790 the concept of a canal in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts was forming in the minds of certain vigorous and imaginative men in that area. The thought even occurred to them that at some future time, by connecting with other canals, their proposed Middlesex Canal would provide a link in a chain that would open up trade with the St. Lawrence River. (3)
A first glance at the topography of New England would seem to discourage even the most enthusiastic canal builders, especially those of the 1790's who would have little more than shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows with which to work. When there is a need, however, the hardy New Englander usually rises to the occasion. So it was with the Middlesex Canal, which interestingly enough was one of the two pioneer works in the nation. The need for such a canal was well explained by the great philosopher and nature lover, Henry D. Thoreau: "The Merrimack or Sturgeon River is formed by the confluence of the Pemigewasset, which rises near the Notch in the White Mountains and the Winnipisiogee which drains the lake of the same name, signifying `The Smile of the Great Spirit.' From their junction it runs south seventy-eight miles to Massachusetts and thence east thirty-five miles to the sea. I have traced its stream from where it bubbles out of the rocks of the White Mountains above the clouds, to where it is lost among the salt billows of the ocean on Plum Island Beach (Newburyport) - - - - - Rising at an equal height with the Connecticut, the Merrimack reaches the sea by a course only half as long, and hence has no leisure to form broad and fertile meadows like the former, but is hurried along rapids and down numerous falls without delay." (4) From its source in the north it was possible to run down lumber and ship-building materials, which greatly benefited Newburyport. Boston, not too many miles south, resented its narrow separation from a river which was providing Newburyport with material much needed in the Massachusetts capital. In order that Boston obtain a better hold on the inland trade, several influential capitalists and far-seeing investors secured from the state a charter for the Middlesex Canal in 1793. On December 31, 1803 the canal was finally opened. A narrow ditch, it ran like a silver ribbon for twenty-seven and one quarter miles from Middlesex Village, about a mile above present day Lowell, to the Charlestown Mill Pond near Boston. It had cost $630,000 and in its day was the longest canal in America. (5)
The plan for the Middlesex Canal is said to have originated with the Honorable James Sullivan who was during the period from 1790 until his death in 1808 a sheriff, a judge of the Supreme Court, an attorney-general, and the governor of Massachusetts. Colonel Loammi Baldwin of Woburn, Massachusetts was also a moving spirit in getting the canal under way and devoted much of his later life and energy until his death in 1808 to its upkeep. His house may still be seen in Woburn facing one of the remaining recognizable portions of the canal. (Although not directly connected with the history of the canal, the writer was interested to find in his research that while first sheriff of Middlesex County, Baldwin's duties carried him to an obscure part of the little town of Wilmington, Massachusetts where his attention was drawn to an extraordinary gathering of woodpeckers on an apple tree which stood by itself in an open field. Upon investigation he discovered that the fruit of the tree was of an excellent but unknown quality. Gathering scions, he grafted them to trees in his own orchard. Throughout the years that followed, he scattered the seeds through the county of Middlesex. This hardy apple, known for its excellent keeping qualities, was first called the Pecker, but later was changed to the Baldwin in honor of its discoverer and propagator. Hence the name of Loammi Baldwin should be remembered not only for his labors on the canal, but also for his part in the propagation of this apple which has provided refreshment for many and revenue for farmers for almost two centuries). (6)
To return to the canal, however, a charter was granted to Sullivan, Baldwin, and others as capital proprietors of the Middlesex Canal on June 22, 1793 by his Excellency the Governor John Hancock. By this charter the proprietors were authorized to lay such assessments as were required for the construction of the canal. As will be shown later these assessments were numerous and burdensome to the stockholders. In view of the many difficulties to overcome, it is small wonder that the canal was ever started, let alone completed. Actually it is impossible for us to form an adequate idea of these obstacles. (7)
For example, the original surveyor, Benjamin Thompson, a local man, had never seen or heard of a theodolite, an instrument which was necessary for accurate measurement of the height of the rivers. After laborious calculation and much squinting along carpenters' levels, Thompson decided that the ascent from the Concord River in Billerica to the Merrimack in Chelmsford was sixteen and one-half feet while the ascent from the Medford River to the Concord River amounted to sixty-eight and one half feet. Fortunately for the proprietors a Samuel Weston from England, who was well versed in this type of engineering happened to be in the United States. When called in he found the estimated sixty-eight and one half foot ascent to be actually one hundred and four feet, while the sixteen and one half foot ascent was actually a twenty-five foot drop. This was very important, since it meant that the water for the canal would have to come from the Concord River instead of the Merrimack. (8) It is interesting to note that no one would have thought of the canal had it not been for the Merrimack and yet not one drop of water from this river ever flowed through the Middlesex Canal. The highest point from which almost all of the water for the canal had to come is in North Billerica almost within sight of the writer's home. It should also be remembered that although the canal is loosely said to have connected Lowell with Boston, the city of Lowell was not then even in existence.
The Middlesex Canal has been called "The Incredible Ditch" for many other reasons than those already mentioned. Few of the builders and none of the workmen had ever seen a canal. The workmen did not understand the operation of the locks which had to be used to control the levels of water. Of these, twenty were necessary in the twenty-seven and one quarter mile waterway. They had no conception of how to carry a canal over a river by means of a trough. For this purpose eight aqueducts had to be built. Fifty bridges of various sizes were also necessary. (9)
As a result a crew of two hundred laborers often worked from daybreak until sunset under sub-contractors who often did not know exactly what they were doing or how to go about doing it. Even the proprietors argued among themselves regarding variations in the route and ways of getting around obstacles which they had not foreseen. Neither workmen nor employees knew anything about cement, since this operation was twenty years ahead of the cement industry in America. (In later years cement invented in Holland did much to correct what had been an almost insurmountable problem regarding leaking canal banks, which incidentally had to be at a thirty-three degree angle). In the early years of construction the sides of the canal had to be made by "puddling" which is the tempering of clay with water by chopping and working on it with narrow spades until it reaches a semi-plastic state. (10)
It must be said that the thought of this silver ribbon winding its way to the sea captured the imagination of many people in the area. Prominent men known to all historians had faith that this project could be a success. John Hancock, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams were all stockholders. Such far seeing men were content to have the earnings put back into repairs and improvements on the canal, but others were not pleased when the project met with so many setbacks. This latter group created another problem by insisting on the use of wood on most of the locks where stone would have been more durable. In several years the wood had to be replaced at great costs and inconvenience. Hence money, as is true in so many phases of life, became a problem. Because of the constant repairs which were necessary, no dividends could be paid for many years and constant assessments on the stockholders discouraged some into selling their shares. Added to the error of the use of wood instead of stone was the mistake of opening the canal for business before the masonry had dried and the sides settled. Despite Baldwin's pleadings, the stockholders outvoted him in their eagerness to start realizing some monetary gain. The pioneer trip, although only a short one from Billerica to the Merrimack, caused fissures and breaks which made more expense necessary. (11)
Labor was a problem not only in this respect but also because of the pay that the proprietors felt able to give. The average man could do better financially elsewhere. Often newspaper advertisements had to be placed in every section of New England in an effort to obtain manpower. In 1874 and 1875, for example, a common hand received eight dollars per month. Since it cost him two dollars per week for his board and lodging, he was in reality working only to keep himself existing. Although the typical wage increased throughout the years, the board and lodging did the same, so that it may easily be seen that in the beginning in general the highest type of man was not attracted to working on the waterway. Gradually the proprietors found it more feasible to pay the men as individuals according to their worth than to have a set rate for all. (12)
The laborers who traveled along with the canal were boarded in the neighborhood and fed at the company's barracks. These were usually a rowdy lot given to heavy drinking. It is reported, however, that rarely did this have an effect on them during working hours. The local contractors to whom the proprietors sublet sections of the canal for digging were of a different type. An interesting case from the point of view of labor was the one of Benjamin Dowse of Billerica who with his son undertook to dig a section of the canal in that area. Roberts records the following in the writing of Dowse:
The petition of Benjamin Dowse humbly shows that he undertook to dig and make two hundred and fifty rods for thirteen dollars and fifty cents per rod which amounts to three thousand three hundred and seventy-five dollars. That the work proved of a different magnitude from his calculations from obstructions that could not be foreseen by him. That instead of the sum the contract job has cost him four thousand five hundred and ninety-two dollars, besides his own trouble and attention to the taking care of it. He, therefore, prays the said proprietors to consider his case and to make him such further allowance as they shall find proper so as to save him and his family from distress which otherwise might come on them by his attention to the work on the Canal, the unknown disadvantages of which he did not and could not calculate against.
The directors paid Dowse five hundred dollars extra that his loss might not be so great and ordered, through the request of Baldwin, that Benjamin, Jr. who had been "indefatigable and labored hard in the Jobb and been much exposed to cold and wet," be presented with a suit of clothes. In an unusual display of generosity the proprietors ordered a complete outfit for the young man. In this manner was one labor problem settled in the late eighteenth century. (13)
Another incident which reveals the difference between the labor problems of that day and this is illustrated in a memorandum from the superintendent to the directors on May 27, 1802:
The Workmen have exerted themselves of late and have with the greatest cheerfulness gone into the water many times up to their armpits and continued wet for whole days together – (The superintendent asked the directors if he may) – promise some kind of a treat – on the insuing 4th of July with liberty to suspend their work for a few hours on some part of the day to enjoy it. Would not this have a good effect in stimulation ting them to greater Exertions." (14)
The reader may readily see that although the labor problem was in many respects difficult, it was in other respects quite simple.
A problem which could never be overcome either in the construction or in the operation of the canal was the rough, rugged New England winter. The frost prevented digging, the stinging cold impeded masons in their work, and ice covered the canal for at least four months of the year. Hence work on it usually stopped around December 1, and commenced again at the beginning of April. Then as now, it became a favorite gathering place for skaters who on moonlit nights would build a cheery fire along its banks to keep from becoming chilled. (15)
Rocks and ledge also provided a problem, as has been seen in the case of Benjamin Dowse. Although they are moved easily with the equipment of today, there was in that era little knowledge of the use of gun powder for this purpose. An anecdote from Loammi Baldwin's diary relates that during the building, two men were given the task of setting off a charge of gun powder. When it exploded, one man was killed and the other ran away never to be seen again. If at all possible rocks were removed by hand or by horses and oxen. (16) At one spot in Wilmington there was such a ledge of rock that a ninety degree turn had to be made. This was called the Ox Bow. According to tradition, such a strain was put on the ropes pulling the boat that the rocks at the turn through years of friction had grooves worn into them. The reader can well imagine the surprise and delight of this writer when he discovered these rocks while meandering along the old canal bed one Sunday afternoon as this year's late February snows were melting. So smooth and shiny were the grooves that they stood out plainly in the late afternoon sun. In conversing with members of the Middlesex Canal Association, he finds that this remaining feature of the old waterway seems to be known to almost no one of this generation.
There were other difficulties to be surmounted. Aquatic grasses grew in the canal and had to be cleared out each year by men working with scythes and standing at times up to their shoulders in water. In addition, musquashes and mink burrowed into the banks and undermined them. A bounty was placed on their heads in 1809 by James Sullivan. If caught within two rods of the canal, fifty cents a head was the reward; if within quarter of a mile, thirty cents a head was given; if within half a mile, ten cents was the stipend; if within a mile, the trapper could expect only five cents a head. Apparently the seven men to whom these heads could be turned in trusted the honesty of their fellow man, since his "verbal declaration" of where the animal was caught was all that was needed, along with the body of the animal, for the reward. The skin could then be taken by the trapper. (17)
Despite these many obstacles, the Middlesex Canal was finally opened in its entirety in 1803, ten years after it had been started. Stock which had sold for twenty-five dollars per share in 1794 by this time had reached the value of four hundred and seventy-five dollars, and in 1804 was selling for five hundred dollars per share. During the building period it developed that stock selling alone was not going to yield sufficient funds, as the cost of construction had been greatly underestimated. Even with labor's low rate of pay, expenses mounted rapidly. Consequently new ways of raising money were tried. Chief among these were lotteries. (18) Later in 1816, the Legislature of Massachusetts, in an effort to help the struggling corporation financially, granted it two townships in Maine, which was then a part of Massachusetts. This was of no immediate help since the land was in a remote and unknown wilderness and no buyers could be found. (19)
The following describes an imaginary journey along the tow paths, which as far as can be ascertained were located always only on the west side of the canal. Emphasis is placed on its various aqueducts, locks, and points of interest. With its zenith at 107 feet above sea level, the Middlesex Canal extended from the Concord River toward Middlesex Village to the north and Boston to the south. Eight aqueducts, twenty locks, the necessary sluiceways, safety gates, culverts, and waste weirs were constructed to provide an uninterrupted aquatic voyage to several destinations on the shores of the canal whether they be a six mile hop or a twenty-seven mile excursion. The canal traversed areas in the towns of Chelmsford, Billerica, Wilmington, Woburn, Medford, and Charlestown. Today the younger towns of Winchester, Lowell, and Somerville would have to be included if an accurate map was to be penned. (20)
About a mile above the Pawtucket Falls in the Merrimack River was Sullivan Harbor. Here the canal began its twisting, tortuous journey toward Boston. At the entrance to the canal were three stone locks constructed with trass mortar, the best built of the twenty locks. Here today are the railroad yards of the Boston and Maine Railroad. Continuing down the canal under the main street of Middlesex Village, the traveler encountered Black Brook, which was crossed by a one hundred and ten foot aqueduct precariously placed on ten wooden piers. The Great Swamp which is crossed by present day Route 110 was the next obstacle. Once safely inside the Billerica boundary, though still ensconced in the Great Swamp, Hale's or River Meadow Brook was easily crossed by a small forty foot aqueduct. The Billerica Mills were the next salient feature on the journey. Here the canal was introduced to the Concord River by a stone guard lock, excavated from a ledge of rock. The remains may still be seen today in the yard of the Talbot Mills. Following the canal a little further, one encountered the only floating foot bridge of the canal which was constructed across the Concord River to enable the horses to cross. (21) At the north end of the canal as it crossed the river, this writer located the original iron rings which held the bridge in place. The existence of these ancient rings is known to very few of this generation.
Leaving the Concord River area by another stone guard lock, the journeyer continued across the site of the present day Boston and Maine Car Shops. The Shawsheen River was traversed next by a one hundred and eighty-eight foot aqueduct consisting of three central stone piers. Later this aqueduct was narrowed to a width of one hundred and thirty-seven feet of which the remains can still be seen. This is considered the most imposing remaining sight on the canal. Here the journeyer entered Wilmington, which boasts sizable areas of the canal which today may still be easily recognized. (22)
One half mile inside the Wilmington border Nichol's Lock came into view and from there for some distance a gallimaufry of obstacles were encountered. First in the series was Lubber Brook crossed by Sinking Meadow Aqueduct an eighteen foot structure. Gillis Lock appeared in the distance once this brook was crossed. Passing from this lock, the canal obstinately pushed toward Boston across a meadow which caused the builders a great deal of difficulty, since its first tow path sank some thirty feet. This area today is still notable for the high sidewalls. Less than a half mile past Gillis Lock, Settled Meadow Brook obstructed the path of the canal. Here a fourteen foot aqueduct was built to carry the voyager safely toward Boston. Following about one and one half miles further was Maple Meadow Aqueduct, which is still in a good state of preservation. Just beyond this point is the ninety degree Ox Bow turn already mentioned. From here the canal arrived at the Woburn border. (23)
In North Woburn the first interesting sight was (and still is) the Baldwin Mansion built in part in 1660. Nearby a statue commemorating Baldwin has been erected. Behind the present site of the Woburn Public Library were three sets of double locks called the Stoddard or Horn Pond Locks. Here by a feat which was really marvelous in its day, the canal descended fifty feet. Half a mile further, Stone Lock at the crossing of Horn Pond Brook contributed toward another descent. In addition to the Concord River, Horn Pond was the only other source of water for the canal. (24)
A mile and a half below in Medford were the double Gardiner Locks. Just south was the Symmes River Aqueduct which was one hundred and twenty-seven feet long. Remains are still visible today where the Abbajona River connected the Mystic Lakes with the upper basin. A short distance from this junction is a bronze tablet which gives an historical record of the canal. The traveler next encountered the passage of the canal through the Peter C. Brooks Estate, upon which an elliptical stone arch carried a farm road over the canal. This beautiful bridge, built at the cost of one thousand dollars with stone brought down the canal from a quarry in Chelmsford, is the finest example of the canal's many accommodation bridges. (25)
A mile end a half further was Gilson's Lock, followed by the one hundred and thirty-five foot Mystic River Aqueduct placed on two stone abutments and three stone piers. Traveling another mile, the journeyer came to the Medford Branch Lock Canal. This canal, a quarter of a mile long, was dug to facilitate the passage of goods down the Mystic River, but was unsuccessful and was destroyed in 1836. From here remaining traces of the Middlesex Canal have all but disappeared. It is known, however, that it traversed Broadway Perk in Medford where a stone monument now marks its path. It then twisted around Mount Benedict in Somerville and entered Charlestown. Here, nearing its completion, the canal, crossed by the Medford Turnpike, reached the Malden Road Lock. Six hundred feet further another lock led to the Charlestown Mill Pond. Still further along was a double lock erected at the tidal waters of the Charles River which carried the canal boats in the final stages of their journey to Boston proper. (26)
(1) John Brainard, "On Connecticut River," The Poems of John Brainard, p. 5.
(2) Robert Payne, The Canal Builders, pp. 1-28.
(3) Payne, pp. 139-142.
(4) Henry D. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pp. 100-110.
(5) Edward C. Kirkland, Men, Cities, and Transportation, pp. 61-62.
(6) Honorable Samuel Hadley, "Boyhood Reminiscences of Middlesex Village," Lowell Historical Society, Vol. I. Lowell: Butterfield Printing Company, 1913, pp. 25-27.
(7) A. F. Harlow, Old Towpaths, pp. 19-21.
(8) Harlow, pp. 22-26.
(9) Raymond P. Holden, The Merrimack, pp. 155-156.
(10) Ibid., pp. 157-158.
(11) Christopher Roberts, The Middlesex Canal 1793-1860, pp. 101-115.
(12) Roberts, pp. 78-81.
(13) Roberts, pp. 72-73.
(14) Ibid., p. 76.
(15) Frederick Coburn, History of Lowell and Its People, pp. 117-118.
(16) Roberts, pp. 65-66.
(17) Harlow, p. 317.
(18) Madalyn Waggoner, The Long Haul West, pp. 19-20.
(19) Harlow, p. 165.
(20) Roberts, p. 191.
(21) Roberts, p. 192.
(22) Ibid., p. 192.
(23) Roberts, p. 193.
(24) Ibid., pp. 193-194.
(25) Roberts, p. 194.
(26) Ibid., pp. 195-196.
Note: This article is continued in the next issue of Towpath Topics (September 1969).
ENGLISH TRIP - As already announced, the Association is considering sponsoring a trip to England for a tour of English canals. About half a dozen persons have already expressed an interest in a tour for late Summer or early Fall in 1970. We have even received an invitation from an English couple who own a couple of boats, which they offer for our accommodation. A final decision will have to be made early this Fall, so anyone interested should communicate with the Association promptly, to permit the announcement of a definite proposal in the next issue of "Towpath Topics."
RECENT ACQUISITIONS - The Association has just acquired four original oil paintings of Canal scenes by Joseph Payro of Wakefield and a multitude of photographs and slides from Mr. Payro's collection. One of the paintings was reproduced in our brochure as the "before" view of the Shawsheen Aqueduct. This munificent gift comes to us through the courtesy of Mr. Peyro's son Ernest. We are extremely grateful to him for his generosity, and must now redouble our efforts to find a more suitable (and heated) location for our museum.
HISTORY WRITING PROJECT - One of the current projects of the Association is the preparation of a definitive history of the Middlesex Canal which we hope to have published commercially. Originally intended as a new edition of the out-of-print book by Lewis M. Lawrence, it has been decided to attempt something more ambitious. This project is to be a cooperative one, with several members of the Association participating in the research end writing. Any member who would like to join the project is invited to write the Association or to call one of the officers.